Tag Archives: advertising

Government brainwashing works – and it’s for your own good

Earlier today, a tweet by Ellie Sharman about a two year old Liberal Vision article almost prompted by to write about its wrongheadedness before I realised that I had already done so. That was that, I thought, until I read this article about how the beleaguered Health Minister had been forced to restore his cuts to the public health campaign budget after evidence emerged that the cuts had actually lead to an increase in flu deaths, as well as a decline in things like people joining programmes to give up smoking.

What does this have to do with airbrushing? Well, for me it highlights a pretty fundamental point: advertising works. Andrew Lansley has at least given us a bit of evidence we can now draw on in future to ensure that the mistake is not repeated.

It is the fact that advertising works that sums up why I am not a libertarian or classical liberal. Brains can be manipulated and even fooled; we aren’t rational beings. The libertarian assertion that if you just took state action out of the equation, people would act rationally simply isn’t backed up by any credible evidence. And of course they end up tying themselves up in knots attempting to prove it.

So it was that in his Liberal Vision article two years ago, Tom Papworth found himself implying that “airbrushing” doesn’t manipulate young women and that to assert that it did so was to suggest that it does is to brand them as “stupid”. The idea that people can be manipulated on a psychological level and not be cretinous does not sit well with libertarians. Yet the simple fact is that if psychology did not have a large part to play in advertising, it would not have evolved in the dramatic way that it did over the course of the 20th century, and people would not now be lamenting the delay of Season 5 of Mad Men.

When the government produces an advert designed to encourage you to give up smoking, it is explicitly attempting to manipulate you. That doesn’t sit terribly well with classical liberals, yet why is it such a dreadful thing for a democratically elected and ultimately accountable government to be doing it but not a commercial company which is only accountable to its shareholders?

Psychology and neuroscience represent massive challenges for liberalism which it can’t afford to ignore. It isn’t that the principles at the heart of liberalism are flawed, just that their real world application are inadequate. This is what the new liberals realised at the start of the 20th century and it is something we must be continually alive to. Yet there remains a strand which defiantly refuses to acknowledge this and wraps itself in the easy slogans and notions about rationality of the Victorian Age.

As a result of the government spending millions of pounds encouraging people to live healthier lifestyles, people’s lives – and thus liberty – are improved in a tangible, measurable way. It is right that governments continue to do so, notwithstanding the fact that there is a real debate to be had over how far it should go. It is equally right that politicians such as Jo Swinson raise issues about advertising and body image with initiatives such as the Campaign for Body Confidence; again notwithstanding the fact that some of the conclusions they draw are liable to be problematic. To suggest that there is some simple, magic liberal litmus test which we can apply to difficult areas such as this is the ultimate act of illiberalism.

Real Women and Policy

The Lib Dem womens’ policy paper has now been published so the ‘airbrushing’ debate can now move away from what is being said in the media and onto what the policy paper actually says.

The paper has a total of 40 policy proposals, many of which are already policy. The two that have garnered media attention are:

21. Protect children from body image pressure by preventing the use of altered and enhanced images in advertising aimed at under 16s, through changes to Advertising Standards Authority rules. We would work with industry regulators and professionals to find ways to ensure that children have access to more realistic portrayals of women (and men) in advertising

22. Help women make informed choices by requiring adverts to clearly indicate the extent to which digital retouching technology has been used to create overly perfected and unrealistic images of women

The first thing that should be noted is that nowhere do the words “airbrushing”, “Photoshop” or “ban” appear. The clauses are much less prescriptive than last week’s hype might have lead us to believe.

I still have two significant problems with these clauses however. Firstly, the paper provides no evidence whatsoever to convince us that this would be an effective remedy. Not even a footnote (there are footnotes and anecdotes for other proposals).

Secondly, it fails to explain why advertising is being singled out here when the magazines that such adverts are to appear in are not. There does not currently exist a regulatory body to control what can appear on the front page of magazines. All the time they continue to pump out idealised images of women (and they do that because it sells) then why get worried about what appears on page 92?

When you break it down it appears like a fairly meaningless sop. Having read the paper I don’t think it gets to the heart of the problem at all. As such, I fear that this is selling short the very women and girls that the paper is seeking to protect.

For completeness, I should point out here that the paper does have a number of other proposals when it comes to body image:

23. Encourage the British Fashion Council and design schools to ensure students are taught and judged on their ability to cut to a range of sizes and body types
24. The fashion industry should implement all the recommendations in the Model Health Inquiry, including introducing model health certificates for London Fashion Week
25. Require cosmetic surgery advertising and literature to give surgery success rates by collecting and publishing Patient Reported Outcome Measures. This would assess whether the surgery had the desired effects
26. Ensure age-appropriate modules on body image, health and wellbeing, and media literacy are taught in schools

23 and 24 are surely unobjectionable as they are simply urging best practice and not even regulatory. For non-libertarians, 25 seems a pretty common sense measure, aimed at providing people with useful information. 26 is all well and good, but I have to say I question the wisdom of adding to the already long list of things we make teachers cover in schools; I thought we were demanding a bonfire of the curriculum as recently as March this year? Either way, I am sceptical how a lesson one afternoon in school is going to achieve much.

In short, I can’t help but feel this is just scratching the surface of what is a much more complex issue.

Over at Liberal Conspiracy, Unity has just written this:

[The main problem the Green Party faces is] it’s open and democratic approach to policy-making in which any member can put forward a policy, call for vote and get the policy accepted into the party’s manifesto if it prove popular with members too readily militates against evidence-based approaches to policy making, particularly in a party that typically attracts considerably more than its fair share of proponents of pseudoscience.

He’s writing about the Green’s anti-science policies but before we get to smug about their often loony ideas we should pause for thought about how the Lib Dems are often subject to the same forces. I don’t agree with Unity and Martin Robbins that the problem is democratic policy making processes; Labour has torn up its democratic structures but its policies are if anything less evidence-based than the Lib Dems’. But people need to be wary of voting at party conference in favour of “nice things” and demand a more rigorous approach. It is notable that the party’s Federal Policy Committee has failed to demand this itself in this instance. Perhaps this is a good example of how the policy paper model, imposed during the merger period by the SDP wing, doesn’t particularly work very well. Certainly the rules about policy papers having to have specific word limits works against a more evidence-based approach.

Airbrushing: will Jo Swinson blind us with science?

Having been away for a week, I didn’t comment on the proposals to ban the airbrushing of models which will be debated at the Lib Dem conference next month.

The real problem about commenting on this is that we have yet to see the full proposals. The Lib Dem blogosphere, particularly the Libertarians, love to get terribly exercised at the prospect of banning things. It’s just not liberal! we are constantly reminded, or more precisely, it is Fundamentally Illiberal (complete with scary looking capitalisation). Personally however, I tend to take a more evidence-based approach before banging on about John fucking Mill (I think the Lib Dems should produce their own God Trumps inspired Liberal Trumps, with the Mill card always winning. It would save a lot of time). Philosophy is always reached for, psychology or sociology almost never. It is as if the last 100 years never happened. More to the point, it is as if dualism was never critiqued. Frankly, if we did all live in a state of complete seperation of mind and body, the libertarians would have a point. The fact that time and again we learn that environmental factors affect behaviour is a problem they have never come to terms with.

With all that said, I remain somewhat sceptical of this proposed policy. What exactly are we going to ban, for example? When Jo Swinson talks about “air brushing” is she talking literally or figuratively? If the idea is some tightening up of existing advertising guidelines, including a general prohibition against promoting an ideal body image to children, then I would look a lot more favourably to it it than a blanket ban on “airbrushing.” There is a real danger of confusing the medium for the message here. Is it really okay to promote images of “perfect” bodies so long as they are produced with the use of lighting and lenses rather than Photoshop?

The proposed rules about advertising aimed at adults sound, if anything, more difficult to regulate. If augmentation is okay so long as it is admitted to, how big will the disclaimer have to be? 8-point text where you won’t notice? A fag packet-proportioned 50%? Will it just be beauty products targeted or all advertising? Will film posters, Photoshopped to within an inch of their lives, have to carry the same disclaimers?

But fundamentally, where is the evidence behind any of this? Thus far, the only statistic I’ve seen anywhere is a 47% increase in under-18s admitted to hospital for anorexia or bulimia treatment. That is clearly bad, but is it a spike or a trend? And what evidence is there that such a ban would change behaviour?

In the case of restrictions on smoking there was a lot of evidence produced, over decades. You might quibble about some of it. You might argue that we went too far, or that we acted too slowly. But the debate was evidence-led. What I haven’t seen thus far is anything to suggest that a ban like this would achieve anything. What would an airbrushing ban achieve that won’t be immediately be undone by all those Barbies, Bratz and Disney Princesses? You don’t need photographs to sell fantasy to children (or indeed anyone).

I’m not against bans in principle. If a judicious ban or restriction here and there can help people exercise their own personal judgement instead of being influenced by a bombardment of propaganda, then in principle it is the only liberal thing to do. But it has to be evidence-based and in most cases I’m not convinced there really is that much evidence out there at the moment. I have yet to be convinced that the new Lib Dem policy paper is going to make a case for restricting “airbrushing” – here’s hoping that it contains, to quote the immortal words of Jennifer Aniston, a pretty damn meaty “science bit.”

Completely Nuts

I’m confused about this latest ad ban. Which character is meant to be gay? The one who is walking peculiarly, or the one wearing lots of gold jewelry, referring to pride in the “man race” and chomping down hard on phallic shaped object demanding that we “get some nuts”?

If this ad is meant to represent the ultimate hetero bashing a homo, I’m Mad Murdoch.

How to give head in advertising

Car Giant ChrisOver at BAE’s favourite leftwing magazine, Richard Herring writes a blog post I’ve been meaning to do only puts it far more eloquently and humourously.

One thing he doesn’t mention is that Chris’ “giant smile” on the advert doesn’t really look like a smile at all. Smug is one way of putting it. Another is to point out it looks rather similar to the expression one has when one has a mouthful of someone one does not know whether to spit out or swallow. Nothing wrong with that of course, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t get that from his wife or girlfriend. Clearly there is another dimension to this sad squit’s life that has yet to be told.

Conservative Party to make Novel Use of the Mr Berners-Lee’s Marvellous Invention

Is it me, or does this story look like its come through a timewarp?

Tories push online ads campaign

The Conservatives say they are adopting a “fresh approach” to politics with a pre-conference advertising campaign that will run exclusively online.

If this had been a story published at any point during the last century, then it might have been newsworthy. But in 2007? On a not-particularly slow news day?

Who has Andy Coulson been sleeping with to get this kind of coverage?

Plaid bid to subvert the RPA fails

Plaid Cymru are crying foul over the BBC’s decision not to throw the Representation of the People Act out of the window and allow them thousands of pounds of state-subsidised advertising.

All I can say to that is: ha ha. If Plaid should be angry at anyone, it is the Welsh Rugby grounds who signed a contract that they surely knew they had no ability to fulfill.